(Original post found and formatted for the Escapist Magazine forums. Found here.)
Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet is one of the more interesting ways to start a piece in that there is no drawn out exposition, spoken narration, or any scenery description. It starts out with a fight. Two men less than two sentences from animalistic violence, and visceral combat. After the fists have flown and a man murdered is the audience let in on the context of the brawl. It's a powerful way to start a piece, letting the emotions serve as the introduction, leaving details to experience rather than narration.
BioShock has a similar plan, starting with a plane crash. Oil-slick waters hissing with flame, and a lighthouse entrance advertising relative safety from the burning waters around. From there, the protagonist, whose eyes the player inhabit, goes on an emotional rollercoaster through the artistic wonder that is Rapture. Every inch of society dripping with the expense and extravagance of excellence, a better society nestled among the octopuses' gardens, in a towering city hundreds of leagues under the sea, and coming apart at the seams. The artistry, architecture, and cityscapes are beautifully rendered and catastrophically destroyed. It's a bit like looking at the modern Colosseum, a testament to the beauty of man and the harshness of nature.
Every experience in Rapture has no context other than what the player brings to it. There's just a voice in the radio, a utopia turned insane, and an endless population of insanity dragging its claws into the player's heels. In that way, it's similar to Portal, a narrative so cleverly understated that the story capitalized on the details, and gave the player nothing else. In terms of using minimalism to convey a narrative, BioShock meets its mark, and manages to tell the tale of Rapture without speaking a word of it, and letting its inhabitants provide context to broken and lost city.
The problem with that is that there needs to be a certain amount of empathy for the scenario, or the atmosphere, to have life. BioShock has next to none. The splicers, some of whom had voices in various in-game audio diaries, their personalities and voices providing the player with a lens through which Rapture is made into the city it is, and was. However, for every splicer who has a voice, a brain, a soul, any amount of humanity, it is lost before the end of their stay in the player's perception. Every single splicer that once had a voice devolves into a traditional, standard enemy. It's nigh-impossible to empathize with a thug who does little more than run, swing, and shoot. However, it forced the player to understand through the narration of the major parts of the city, then devolves them rapidly into mindless enemies. The whole build-up seems wasted when it coalesces one of many cold, lifeless gunfights.
Worse still, there are a very limited number of character models in game. In fact, only two of the characters don't have their models reused. The worst part still is that the final boss of the game, the main antagonist, isn't one of them. It just feels lazy.
There are only two major characters in the whole game the player should have the smallest amount of care for, and the game forcibly removes one of them. Within the roughly 15-hour narrative, the player has so little to hold onto that going from goal to goal loses its luster. Like the city itself, the game just can't keep the player drawn in. Everything ceases to have the adrenaline-fueled drive, and instead felt like a cog in the machine. Perhaps it was in favor of the overall narrative, but that doesn't protect the game from its medium. As a game, BioShock drops the ball in a big way in terms of giving the player an actual playing experience.
Something that the actual gameplay doesn't help enforce. The gunplay and powers feel run of the mill. If anything, they keep the same life of their spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2. A game whose release was a nearly unforgivable eight years prior. Considering how little the system seems to have changed, it almost feels rushed. In comparison to how much time and effort seemed to ooze from the walls in the environment, writing, and voice-work. To feature gunplay and powers that allude to a time long since passed that it feels far too thrown together to even be worth the cost of entry, in compared to actually going back and playing System Shock 2. There are even some old-feeling FPSRPG conventions that seem to take away from the overall effect. The increased defense and life of late-game enemies isn't offset by late-game powers and upgrades. It ends up making the beginning feel a touch too easy, and the end a leap and bound too hard. It ends up making the cogs poke out of the sides of the machine, further hurting the play experience.
The only point of empathy and interest the experience maintains throughout is the Little Sisters, little girls whose fate is entirely on the player's choosing. These young girls seem so inhuman and unnatural at the worst of times. However they may appear at first, they become very, very human when separated from their protectors. It becomes very disquieting to see them alone, without anyone to protect them, in a world surrounded with psychos and sociopaths.
However, the game drops the ball in turning them very quickly into a mechanic. The first and second little sister to appear on her own own is a lost and frightened little girl. It's easy to care for her as an individual, but that quickly loses its touch by the fifth, and is completely gone by the tenth. By then, the girls are simply a growth mechanic. Fight a Big Daddy, harvest or save a little girl, and get benefits. The death of Big Daddies hit the Little Sisters in a very big way, but to the player, it's a goal. There's no mourning the loss of life, or the lifelong companion dead. Just a goal.
It's hard not to look at the stellar atmosphere in BioShock and not expect greater things from the rest of the game. However, the game simply does not deliver. Instead, we get a great idea and a beautiful setting that would be better left to novelization or cinematography. It's quite possible that BioShock, as a movie, could've been the next Citizen Kane in terms of commentary on the human condition. However, as a game, BioShock consistently fails to deliver. That's only made worse when games like Portal to the same type of story that much better, andFallout 3 do the game elements more justice. However, the absolute worst part of what BioShock is what it could have been.
Bottom Line: BioShock feels like the game System Shock 2 tried to be, but came out eight years too late, and didn't innovate enough to pull its weight. Neither a good nor bad game, but terrible compared to what it should have been.